Time for Plan B, concluded

Early morning in Splott High Street, and Gethyn was taking Toto for his walk. What breed of dog Toto might be and why he was called Toto, Gethyn didn’t know. Old Tom had been muttering something about shiny red shoes and Kansas – or it might have been Texas – when that last ambulance came and scraped him up. Totes was kind of small and kind of white, and his left eye was missing. Gethyn didn’t like to think overmuch about that eye and how, or for what purpose, it might have been sacrificed. Toto began to pull on his improvised rope lead, and snuffle.

‘Yes, it’s your old place, Totes.’ Marks and Spencer’s doorway was where Old Tom would always sit, muffled up in charity clothes, old bedspreads and various bits of rag. They made a good team. Tom would spread a brown raincoat in front of him, and a greasy, upturned cap. Toto would curl up on the mac looking scruffy and sad, casting the occasional wistful one-eyed glance towards the cap and the four two-penny pieces it always contained at the beginning of the day. Toto’s task was to look as if he was really, really, really needed some food, which wasn’t difficult. Gethyn wasn’t the only one who had lost his job recently.

‘Well, doglet, our little bit of luck ran out.’

Yesterday was a bit of a blur, what with starting his job at the supermarket, failing a test he didn’t even know he was taking, then being dismissed from his job at the supermarket. The only bright side – Gethyn always tried to find the bright side – was the tin of Good Boy dog-food he had accidentally acquired. They had let him come home in his uniform – they had no choice, really, since he’d left his other clothes back at the boarding-house room the charity had found for him – which he was shortly to lose, he supposed. There was one very small window, a kitchenette the size of a cupboard behind a pull-across plastic curtain, and an extensive fungus-formation in the upper corner. Gethyn sometimes awoke in the middle of the night and imagined he could see a face in that fungus.

Human Resources had threatened to get the law on him if he didn’t return the itchy, too-tight uniform. They had even handed him a medium-size supermarket plastic bag to put it in. P45 to follow in the post, they said. End of the month. No mention of a pay packet for his single day of employment. When he got home he realised the tin he had confiscated from the bogus old lady, was still crammed into the pocket. Technically, he supposed, he had shoplifted the dog-food, or re-shoplifted it.

That was it, then. Second chances were hard to come by. You could only become a very, very lucky young man once: after that it was shop doorways for you. Perhaps he could claim the Marks and Spencer spot now Old Tom had gone. Might get it without a fight if he moved a bit quick, like, since there was only that woman in the hijab selling The Big Issue to compete with, and she wasn’t there all the time; moved around a lot, he’d heard; town to town on the railway. Maybe he and Toto could do that, except unlike Mrs Big Issue he didn’t have the fare. ‘We could be hobos, Totes.’ Except that it might be difficult to get onto a moving train with a one-eyed dog and he couldn’t remember which rail was the electrocuting one.

Marks’s was a good spot for begging. People had usually got a fair bit of money if they shopped in here. Money to squander, you might say. That generously overhanging façade kept off the rain and best of all in winter they had this hot-air feature which was meant to put customers in just the right sort of mood for wasting money. As they crossed the threshold a gust of cosy warmth enveloped them from above. Occasionally a little waft of it might also extend to a man and his dog in the doorway, if they’d positioned themselves just right.

They made a detour round the cobbled bit by the church, squeezed through a gap in the churchyard railings and sat on smallish tomb right at the edge to share the pre-packed sandwich lunch Gethyn had found in a bin outside Marks’s. Ham and pickle. Maybe someone bought it and then didn’t fancy it. Toto slurped some water from a puddle by the church wall. Gethyn had refilled his water bottle from the tap before leaving home. It was starting to rain again. When was it ever not, in Splott? ‘We’re poets who don’t know it, Totesie.’

Gethyn always sat on this same tomb. Street people had their favourite places – favourite parks, favourite benches, favourite doorways. It made them feel safe, or relatively. This one was special because it had got a dog on it; not one like Toto but a long, smooth dog with a smug and devious expression, some kind of hound. It had this really weird inscription, and on the stone you could just make out, long-faded and half-obscured by moss, an engraving of a broken gun – not like kaput broken, but like when they deliberately disengaged one half from the other for safety. Gethyn liked to make up stories about the people inside the tombs. He had decided that this man – Henry Marland Mistletoe – or Miftletoe, if you read it the way it looked – must have been a gamekeeper.

He got up and walked around the tomb. The grass at the edge was bumpy, and full of rabbit droppings. He thought he had read everything there was to read on it, but now he spotted something else, a single line engraved along the base of the stone at the back. It said

The Lord helpf thofe who help themfelves

Not so much a gamekeeper as a poacher, then. That might why they’d stuck him out at the edge here. Disreputable, but not exactly hated. Someone – the stonemason, perhaps – had had a sense of humour and been fond of Henry Mistletoe. Growing on the grave were some odd-looking blue flowers – some sort of weeds. Gethyn wondered why he had hadn’t noticed them before, and why they had only decided to grow on this particular grave.

The rain was coming down faster now. He picked Totes up and thrust him inside his jacket for warmth. ‘Let’s get ourselves off home, doglet. I’ve got an idea. A cunning plan, even.’

That evening, curled up on his single mattress with Totes as starlight streamed through the one small window and the giant fungus cast eerie patterns on the walls, Gethyn finished re-reading all the handouts in the beautiful bright blue file they had given him on the training course. He got up stiffly and made himself a cup of cocoa, came back to the mattress and thought for a bit. Toto was chasing rabbits in his dreams, paws twitching.

Then Gethyn took up the brand new black Bic pen they had given him on the Psychology of Theft course; also what was left of his beautiful pad of file-paper with the pale blue ruling and four holes that exactly matched the silver rings in the bright blue plastic file, and set to work, writing Modus Operandi across the top and underlining it. Everything he could possibly need to know, do and avoid doing had been here all the time. He and Toto were about to become the best shoplifters ever.

Time for Plan B, continued

Gethyn’s heart was racing but the training had kicked in. ‘Keep the subject under observation at all times. Observe her failing to pay for the item or items. Follow her out of the store. Then and only then, apprehend her.’

He observed her picking up one or two more items and putting them in her basket, but not the tin of dog-food he had seen her push down the front of her coat. He observed her passing through the supermarket checkout and paying, but not for the dog-food.

But what if he had made a mistake? What if somehow she had paid for the dog-food, even though he had had his eyes fixed on her the whole time? But he had to follow through. She had stolen the dog-food, and this was his chance to impress. On his first day!

What if it was the wrong old woman altogether? What if, without realising it, he had taken his eyes off her for a second and some other old woman, an old woman without a tin of dog-food, had taken her place? His subconscious was recognising something strange about her. Something about her gait, was it? Or that permed white hair, so perfectly white, like the Queen’s. And those wrinkled stockings. Surely it was all pull-on slacks and sensible, flat shoes nowadays?

She seemed to have put on a turn of speed now that she was heading for the exit. Free and clear, thought Gethyn, or so she thinks. This is it, he thought, wishing himself anywhere but here but determined to do his duty.

He followed her out through the automatic doors and down the covered way with all the higgledy-piggledy trolleys in it. He nearly fell over one in his haste and his horror. He tapped her on the shoulder and she turned, with a perfect imitation of surprise.

‘Yes?’

‘Mad…madam, please, I…’ This wasn’t going right. What were the proper words, now?

‘Madam, I am a Loss Prevention Associate…’

The woman cupped her hand to her ear. ‘A what?’

‘A Loss Prevention…a store detective, madam. I have been observed you in this store and have reason to believe that you have exited the premises with a tin of dog-food for which you have not paid… for.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, young man – I’ve paid for all my shopping. Look, here is my till receipt.’ She pulled it out of one of the plastic bags and waved it at him.

‘For what’s in your basket, yes, but I have reason to believe that a tin of dog-food has been concealed down your…down your…down the front of your coat, madam. Hand it over to me please.’ What if he had got the wrong woman?

Slowly, with trembling hands, she pulled out a single tin of Good Boy dog food and handed it to him. Then she burst into trembly, old-lady tears. Boo hoo.

Hoo.

Oh, my God, thought Gethyn.

And now she was pointing at something with mottled, old-lady hand. In the distance, on the far side of the car park, he could just about see a dog, tied by its lead. It looked like a some kind of whippet.  And Gethyn could guess what she was going to say. The dog was hers and it was hungry and her pension just wouldn’t stretch… She couldn’t bear not to feed her little doggie, the light of her life he was, and so… She would never shoplift on her own account. It was just for the sake of her poor, hungry little dog…

When she finished telling him about the dog Gethyn turned and walked back into the store, fishing around for some sort of cover story. If anyone asked him he would say he had got it wrong. There had been no crime committed. It was his first day and, over-eager to make his first ‘capture’ he had followed an old woman out of the store: a mistake, his mistake, but after all, better safe than sorry.

He was quite pleased with the story. He was wondering whether there was somewhere he could sit down for a minute or two without being spotted by the security cameras. His legs had turned to jelly.

The old lady watched him go; then, straightening up, she walked briskly around the corner and into the delivery bay. Out of sight she whipped off the white wig and reached beneath a disordered mane of auburn hair to retrieve a miniature radio microphone. ‘Did you get all that, Mr Price?’

‘Loud and clear, thank you Eirlys. And that’s the third fail this month. Wherever would we be without your talent for amateur dramatics?’

Inside the store the tannoy was doing its work.

Gethyn Thomas. Gethyn Thomas. Gethyn Thomas to Human Resources. Now, please!

(To be concluded)

Time for Plan B

Well, I promised myself I’d start writing short stories again and that’s what I’ve done – started writing one. Not, exactly, finished writing one. I think that might take another two posts.

Thing is, I know what the story’s about. I know how it’s going to turn out.

I just have to write the damn thing.

This reminds me of Ex. He was an artist and the paintings he did were large, in oils, and detailed. A ‘short’ painting might take six weeks, a longer one six months. I have no idea how we survived financially since it never occurred to me to ask and he wouldn’t have told me anyway. Maybe he was waiting tables or doing night shifts at Tesco when I wasn’t looking.

He used to say an awful lot of things – but one of the things he used to say while he was still bothering to say anything at all, was this – that he knew before he ever bought the brushes (a complete new set of brushes to every painting) exactly what the painting was going to look like when finished. The in-between bit – that six weeks or six months – was just a drag for him, like painting by numbers. He never wanted to be an artist. He wanted to fly aeroplanes in the RAF and shoot at other aeroplanes.

There is an element of that with my stories. I know what’s going to happen in them, I just wish I could farm the writing of them out to some willing drudge or other.

By the way, this is not going to be a story about a shoplifting dog although shoplifting – also South Wales and uncomfortable uniforms – do play a part in it.

TIME FOR PLAN B

(by me)

In the Pet Food aisle Gethyn slipped a finger inside the collar, trying to ease it away from his neck. At the start of his training he had been asked for his uniform size. He didn’t know his anything size. The last time he had had new clothes his Ma had bought them for him, and he’d forgotten how many years ago that might have been. Time disappears, rough-sleeping.

So they’d measured him, including his neck. ‘Stand still and don’t fidget, young man.’ He’d tried to stand still as she tightened the mustard-coloured tape-measure around his neck. Its edges were scratchy. So was the collar.

He hadn’t quite understood the need for the uniform. Surely if you were trying to catch shop-lifters you needed to be inconspicuous. Was anyone going to shop-lift in front of a man/boy in a uniform? They told him to begin with he would have Mainly Deterrent Value, but that once his probation was up and he’d put in a year or two he could be considered – considered – for an upgrade to plain clothes.

Gethyn fastened his hands behind his back as he’d been taught and pasted on the lofty, all-seeing, all-knowing expression he rehearsed in front of a mirror under the cruel strip-lighting of the long room above the High-Flier Fitness and Sauna Complex, Splott.

He’d learned many other things in that room – all the different ways shop-lifters attempted to shop-lift things and all the little ‘tells’ by means of which an experienced Loss Prevention Agent could catch them in the act such as an unseasonably sweaty brow or an excess of fiddling.

‘Lifters often attempt to disguise their intentions by excessive casualness…’ said Bob the Instructor and former plain-clothes officer in the Cardiff Heddlu.

‘…making a big show of tapping and fiddling and examining the article as if trying to decide whether to purchase it. A legitimate shopper, ironically – you know what ironically means, gentlemen? – wastes very little time inspecting, though behaviour patterns vary slightly between the sexes. A man tends to know what he wants. Inside the store he locates it, he grabs it and he sweeps it into his basket. Job done. A woman probably doesn’t know exactly. She is more just enjoying the shopping. But she won’t on the whole fiddle – no, she will stand at some distance, thinking. She might move up the aisle a bit and then move back, engaged in a feminine struggle to make up her mind. But she doesn’t want to look too eager – she will play it cool – and then she’ll grab it and sweep it into her basket.’

Gethyn had learned a lot of stuff like this during the course, and all paid for by Work for the Homeless. He was very lucky. He knew he was very lucky. He was a very, very lucky young man indeed and was being given a second chance. He’d quite enjoyed the studying, actually, and being forced to think again. He’d been really interested in the Psychology of Theft. He’d appreciated being indoors, out of the everlasting Cardiff rain. He’d really appreciated all the food, the burgers and the chips – mountains and mountains of chips – the mushy peas, the cups of hot steaming tea… Another reason why his collar was tormenting him now.

He’d even enjoyed the stationery they gave him – the black and blue Bic biros, the block of file-paper with pale blue, wide-ruled lines and four holes that magically coincided with the silver rings inside the royal blue plastic folder they’d also given him.

‘Keep all your stuff together, see,’ said Bob the Instructor. ‘Your written notes and all the hand-outs we shall be handing out to you.’ Gethyn had even liked the handouts. He appreciated things that were planned, sensible and in order, and not like his life had been for the last…few… years.

But now he was In Situ. Now he had been Deployed, and Deployment was a whole different kettle of fish.

And just as he was thinking that, about kettles of fish and so forth, he saw an old woman lift a can of dog-food off the shelf, bold as brass, and shove it down her coat.

(To be continued)

 

‘Write a short story every week.

It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row’

(Ray Bradbury)

(Not possible for Ray Bradbury, that is.)

Crawling up the hill behind Hughie

(The Boat House, Laugharne)

I thought to explain how, at the age of twenty, I found myself in a small village in South Wales with the man who was not yet my husband, and how we came to be driving – or attempting to drive – up a 1 in 4 hill, clearly marked as Unsuitable For Motor Vehicles, in a black Ford Popular at three in the morning or thereabouts, with a an elderly drunken Welshman crawling ahead of us. I’m not sure I’m equal to the challenge.

It all began in the school library, some years before when I finally unearthed the full text of the poem I had been searching for for months, having heard a small part of it read. It was Poem In October by Dylan Thomas and hearing it marked my ‘road to Damascus moment’ as a poet. It began:

  • It was my thirtieth year to heaven
  • Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
  • And the mussel pooled and the heron
  • Priested shore
  • The morning beckon
  • With water praying and call of seagull and rook
  • And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
  • Myself to set foot
  • That second
  • In the still sleeping town and set forth….

This matched my inner music. This was, if you like, a prayer in itself.

I had heard and read poems before, of course. Indeed, we had poems rammed down our throats at school, mostly of the tum-te-tum-te-tum I wandered lonely as a cloud and Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk variety. But this was different. It made me shiver. This was what I’d been needing, and I knew it.

Fast forward a few years and I am engaged (sans engagement ring, but that’s another story) to an artist, and he is proposing to drive me to Wales in his car, to Laugharne where the famous Boat House still is, where Dylan Thomas wrote his poems. We were going to camp, it seemed, in an old green Army tent of his father’s. I had never been camping before and didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. How did we do that, I wonder now. How were we brave enough to throw stuff into a temperamental Ford Popular, a combination and rebuilding of two separate scrap Ford Populars, and set off for Wales where neither of us had ever been before? How did he even know the way to Wales? I didn’t. I just knew it was turn left and then a very long way. I never once saw him looking at a map. He must have done it in secret – to preserve the masculine mystique.

I remember he set up the tent on my parents’ lawn, and me thinking, um, won’t a tent on the lawn bring it home to my parents (who were watching from behind the conservatory window) that we will, perforce, be sleeping together in this teensy-tiny tent when we are not, um, actually, um, married? But by then the tent was up and with it, presumably, the game.

We and the Ford Popular spent the first night just across the Severn Bridge, in a big, bumpy field with some cows. It was dark before we stopped so my fiancé (that ring never was forthcoming) had to erect the little green tent with the aid of a torch. We couldn’t see if there were cowpats, but by that time we were too tired and cross to care. It rained. The Army tent was waterproof only so long as you didn’t touch any part of it, whereupon water started pouring in from the touched bit. Water also seeped in underneath the tent, possibly cowpat-polluted, because we didn’t have a proper groundsheet just some bit of tarpaulin his Dad had found in one or other of his seven garden sheds.

The next day we went on to Laugharne and fiancé (though ringless) found a place for us to stay. It had a wonderful name: The Ant Hill Camp And Caravan Site. Wouldn’t you think, if you were opening a caravan site in a big field at the top of a hill that happened to be called Ant Hill, you’d apply a little poetic licence? Call it Hilltop Cara-Haven or The Bella Vista Camping Experience? Especially in the spiritual home of Dylan Thomas. I should stress that I haven’t been back to Laugharne, or Wales, for decades and if The Ant Hill Camp And Caravan Site does still exist and has not long since been obliterated by social housing or turned into a supermarket, I am sure it has greatly improved and is a lovely place to stay.

So, we stayed at this campsite. We stumbled across to the opposite side of the site for the loos and some cold showers. I had lived in a suburban bungalow all my life and weaving between dark tents, in the dark, in a potholey field with a torch, in the middle of some sort of countryside, was worrying. In the evenings we went to the Clubhouse, where few other people went. We sat around and drank Welsh beer in a large, underheated room with a bar at one end and a bored, disconsolate barman. I seem to remember acres of cocoanut matting, but perhaps that was just the colour of the carpet. Oh yes, and plastic palm trees. Could there have been plastic palm trees? In the day we went down to the village and bought Welsh steak and kidney pies (I have since become a vegetarian ) called Goblin. We found they boiled up nicely over a primus stove although the primus stove filled the tent with condensation. As we went into the shop, housewives stopped talking in English and switched to Welsh. We visited the Boat House and looked out over the estuary. It was rather a wonderful view but I couldn’t quite imagine Dylan Thomas – my Dylan Thomas – writing his poems in there. It had a faint smell of fish and chips.

In the local pub we made friends with a group of hippies, who had come from the South of England, near where we had come from. I think they offered us pot, which we didn’t smoke. We also got talking with Edgar and Rhiannon (names of course changed) a young married couple who lived in a council house at the very top of the village. They told us how you got a council house: you persuaded your mother to throw you out. They told us that villagers kept a stock of old dartboards, each of which they would sell to gullible tourists as ‘the very same dartboard Dylan Thomas played on’. Everybody had a useful Dylan Thomas anecdote to share. Either they had known the poet, or their granny’s uncle had known him, or their sister’s teacher’s dog had known him, and this was what had happened… What happened, usually, was that people bought them beers.

There were complicated arrangements around closing time. In the pub, on a weekday, closing time was strictly enforced. When the village policeman was due to walk past they turned off all the lights and stood still and silent. As soon as he had gone they turned on the lights again and resumed drinking, possibly as ‘private guests’. That didn’t work at the weekend, for some reason. At the weekend you left the pub and went up the road to the rugby club. There you could drink, legally, for longer.

To cut a long story short, Edgar and Rhiannon offered to put us up in their council house that night, but we would go to the rugby club first. There we met Hughie, the old gentleman I mentioned at the start. Much beer and whiskey was consumed by everyone apart from me: I was then in my teetotal, orange juice phase. Afterwards we had to get to Edgar and Rhiannon’s, and that was where the 1 in 4 hill came in. My (non-ring-giving) fiancé followed Edgar and Rhiannon, who had walked to the pub and were therefore on foot, and poor, crawling old Hughie, grotesquely hump-backed in the headlights, up the Unsuitable Hill. I remember clutching first the leather upholstery and then the big silver door handle, in apprehension as the little car groaned and staggered upwards and round sharp twists and turns for what seemed like miles. It occurred to me that if she stopped we would start rolling back. I was planning to wrench the door open and throw myself out, if it came to it. Fiancé didn’t seem at all anxious, but then he was full of beer and Welsh whiskey. It is at such times that you really need to be drunk.

Next morning Edgar and Rhiannon were going to a funeral. I remember Rhiannon frying us sausages for breakfast, which were more or less raw. Off they went in their funeral best, trusting us to let ourselves out and shut the door behind us. We were never to see them again.

Sort of purple and hazy

You know those anxiety dreams where you just miss the bus, or the train? Story of my life.

I just missed out on a lot of things. I just missed out on the War. I just missed out on rock and roll, I just missed out on being a hippie and I just missed out on all that New Age mumbo-jumbo: all the stuff I would have been interested in, all the stuff I really needed to know. Just my luck.

The War – I was born a few years too late. I arrived, and was instantly labelled a Baby Boomer, and the minute they give you a label you cease to be anything else. Worldwide, around eighty million human beings may have been lost between 1939 and 1945 during ‘the deadliest military conflict in history’. This estimate includes not just soldiers but civilians, those who died from war-related disease and famine and the prisoners of war who died in captivity. Post-war, young marrieds everywhere did their patriotic duty, whether they were aware of it or not, labouring (literally) to restore the balance. The result was a tidal wave of babies, a lumpy, unmanageable and now increasingly unpopular ‘bulge’ in the population stats, destined to become the hippies of the sixties and seventies. Through no fault of their own they are now, or will shortly be, clogging up our monstrous, overspent, inefficient National Health Service and forcing the younger generation to work harder and harder in order to generate enough taxes to keep everything going.

Like most women in those days, Mum and Nan were Housewives, totally dependent on their men for money; their role – to stay home, clean, tidy and replenish the house, do the cooking, washing-up, laundry and shopping, raise any children and Keep Young & Beautiful. This was in order that their husbands, coming home from a hard day’s work, should not – as a result of a spreading waistline, the odd curler still a-dangle, unshapely eyebrows or a lack of careful make-up – be tempted to Stray. However, I don’t think all the women in those days minded it all that much, and I can understand why. As a stay-at-home Mum you can exercise your creativity through cooking, crafts and childcare, quite apart from being able to take up hobbies, raid the library or write novels, if so inclined.

I find the idea financial dependence on a man – or anyone – pretty nearly unbearable, but that’s just me. Bit of a Wild Thing. I’m not sure what a Wild Thing is, but it sounds good. I’d rather be as poor as a church mouse (as indeed I am) than hand to a man the power to decide, arbitrarily and without any significant knowledge of grocery shopping, how much housekeeping I ‘deserve’ at the end of each week; then have to scrimp and save out of that to buy myself headscarf or a second-hand book, or see a film.  As you can tell, feminism was the one thing I wasn’t too late for.

That being said, I envy the way women in those days had at least leisure to chat, listen to the radio and generally be themselves. Had I been able to stomach the ‘kept woman’ scenario – or been able to bear children, in which case I would have had no choice – I might have written more, and sooner, but I doubt if I would have written well. I would have missed out on the lifetime of learning, loss, muddle, fear, friends, struggle, chance encounters, odd jobs, strange bedfellows – some of them very strange – weird and appalling experiences, Getting By and Making Do Somehow – I now have to write about.

I got to hear quite a lot about the War, via the conversations that went on over my head while Mum and Nan were sitting in the kitchen, knitting. It was lucky for me that they lived at either end of the same street and would meet up several times a day. Grown-ups forget about children, if the children can manage to be forgettable enough. Once – I must have been throwing a tantrum – my mother called me a Prima Donna. I had to ask her what it meant, and was actually quite pleased when she explained. It was a step up from Diffident or Unaffectionate Child, Impossible Baby to Cuddle, etc. Being Diffident etc etc did have its advantages: I overheard a lot.

I heard about having to eat horsemeat, and what you could make from a blackout curtain or parachute silk. I heard about bombed buildings, and babies sleeping undisturbed in their cots, found amid the rubble. Under the kitchen table, hugging my little scabby knees to my chest, I heard about Nan’s experiences running a NAAFI canteen in Swindon in the War, and how they put the cabbage on to boil at ten in the morning and it was like seaweed by dinner time (and she had to throw the rice pudding out). I heard about Mum being evacuated to Wales to live in a cottage with Miners, and being forced to empty the chamber pots by the grand family in a country house near Canterbury, while my uncle was given the job of filling the coal-scuttle. I heard about painting your legs with gravy-browning when you didn’t have stockings, and drawing a line up the back to look like a seam. Maybe everyone is fascinated by the decade just before they were born. I went on to read as much about it as I could, and devoured all the Mass Observation books, made up of contemporary diary entries, or ‘reports’ sent in by ordinary people.

And then I just missed out on the original wave of American folk music, blues and rock and roll. I was just too late for Elvis – or rather he was still around but I saw no point in him. I probably wouldn’t even have realised I’d missed out, except that I married a man nine years my senior. Suddenly I was listening to his records, and to him singing and playing the guitar. This was my introduction to blues, folk and classical music. And even then I didn’t fully appreciate all that I’d missed, musically, still being contaminated with The Beatles, The Stones, The Dave Clark Five, Freddy and the Dreamers and all that sort of stuff. Ironically, long after husband and I were no longer an item I began to listen to that music again on my own account, and take an interest in classical music.

And then I just missed out on being a hippie. Oh, my mother thought I was a hippie, but that was because I never evinced much of an interest in wearing make-up (particularly eyebrow-pencil) a Playtex girdle or frilly blouses, or having my hair nicely permed. But I wasn’t – not really. I was certainly a bit on the shabby side because my tiny Tech College grant meant I had to buy my couture at Oxfam, but I was a few months – maybe even a year – too late. It had all happened, somehow, it had all jingled and jangled its way off into the rainbow-coloured sunset. And I was timid. I never experimented with LSD or smoked a reefer; I never danced in the sunshine at a festival or went to San Francisco wearing flowers in my hair. But doesn’t it look fun? Why wasn’t I there, Oh, why wasn’t I?

As it was, Free Love entirely passed me by. I went steady with a Maths student, half-Austrian and several inches shorter than me. He went off to teacher training college and so, abortively, did I – in another town. End of.

In the common-room some Hendrix look-alike practised what sounded like pretty good riffs all day, but how would I know? In the refectory I was stridden past (I’m groping dimly for the Past Perfect Progressive, or whatever that tense is, of strode past – help me out, someone…) by skinny, long-haired art students in eccentric hats, uncompromising tee shirts, big boots and scarecrow jackets. I was filled with admiration but for some reason I couldn’t actually be one of them, and was as invisible to them as I had been to Mum and Nan under the kitchen table.

And yet I think I am a natural hippie. For me it has never gone away, a way of thinking and being that I never got to manifest at the time. The ‘eighties went, and the ‘nineties, and I began at last to hear about and – thanks to Amazon – obtain copies of books on particle physics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, Zen, mysticism – anything that caught my eye – that were being written as I was being born and labelled a Baby Boomer; when I was a child at school; a teenager failing to play table tennis with the boys at Youth Club; a student and almost a hippie; an unhappy wife. One book led to another – sometimes I read several at once – and I started to see the connections between things – the way one academic discipline morphs into another, the way New Age becomes, imperceptibly, Science – the way it all adds up – the way people far apart in time and space can be approaching the same conclusion from different directions. I also became addicted to Amazon and second-hand paperbacks, which was ruinous to my finances. The postman/lady turned up every other day with yet another cardboard package, jiffy bag or brown-paper parcel – or sometimes a stack of them held together with elastic bands. I made notes, I made connections, I wondered, I thought about Stuff. Without realising it, I was knitting my own degree.